Editing is like getting rid of weeds in a field. Even beautiful sentences like the puff of seeds pictured here need to be cut if they do not belong in the story.
By Shelley Widhalm
Editing for editors on occasion can be torture—not when it’s someone else’s work but when it’s your own.
Why? The work seems ready when it’s written and edited a few times, but really it isn’t. What it may need is content and developmental editing in the case of fiction, or editing for major elements like pacing and tension, character and plot arcs, and setting, atmosphere, world building, dialog and repetition in scenic elements and description.
Or if it’s nonfiction or an article, the content may not be well organized, go off topic or lack transitions.
I’m editing a novel I wrote 15 years ago, “A Bar Girl’s Starry Nights,” about a cocktail waitress and an older gentleman who become friends and help each go through the Twelve Steps. I’d set it aside and wrote other books, thinking, “Oh, it’s cute. It’s my first one.”
I want to self-publish, but I’m close to having my two key projects getting agents (but not quite yet!), so I went back to it and saw I’d made many of the mistakes I’d learned to avoid or fix after the fact.
Being “Objective” in Self-Editing
It had taken experience and working as an editor to be able to be a somewhat objective editor of my own work. I read it like a reader and had forgotten what had happened and while editing, pretended it was written by someone else. I could do that, because I wrote it a long time ago, though I still will need an editor, because as many editors say, you cannot edit your own work and catch all the mistakes.
One fellow editor said some writers are pretty good at editing their own work. They can edit in steps, separating out the different elements, such as editing for pacing, marking the areas where they stop paying attention or want more detail. They can work with beta readers and writers groups to get even more feedback for revision.
While editing my novel, I saw that the first five chapters were back story with a tiny bit of plot, and I thought, this is horrible! I cut 6,800 words in the first 50 pages and first nine chapters. I wondered if I should stop, but then I thought about all the bad books I read because I have a problem with quitting. So I read.
Identifying Major Problems
I saw other problems, including a prelude that looked like I came from the Victorian era. I tried to emulate Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski, just coming off of my English major high. I had two main characters, but then thought it would be clever to include 30 pages telling the story of a third character—so I removed his point-of-view chapters to turn into a short story companion piece. I over described a few things. I repeated scenic elements and plot points. I overwrote. I had too much dialog, even the silly things like “Yeah, okay.”
My first impression is this lacks tension, the characters are unlikeable, and the plot is incredibly boring. I even had a character get full description and not mean anything to the plot but only appear in one scene.
Looking Forward to Editing
But then I got to the middle and started looking forward to editing. And by the end, I’d gotten teary-eyed, feeling the big “oh no!” for one of the main characters. I realized, yes, I have something to work with. It will need a few more editing rounds, especially if I want to consider it a novel instead of a novella.
It started at 65,200 words (barely the length of a novel, starting at 50,000 or 60,000 words, depending on the source) and now is a novella at 49,200 words (a novella is about 20,000 to 50,000 words). We’ll see what happens.
Now I’m having fun with the project, because I’m acting as an editor, something all writers need. But then I’ll turn it over to an editor for that final polish.